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As Cuba Changes, Orquesta Akokán Revives The Golden Age Of Mambo

The members of Orquesta Akokán hail from both Cuba and the U.S., assembled by vocalist and composer José "Pepito" Gómez. They recorded their debut album live to tape in just three days.
Adrien H. Tillmann
Courtesy of the artist
The members of Orquesta Akokán hail from both Cuba and the U.S., assembled by vocalist and composer José "Pepito" Gómez. They recorded their debut album live to tape in just three days.

Orquesta Akokán takes its name from the Yoruba word meaning "from the heart." The group's self-titled debut album, released in March, draws deep from the soul and history of Cuba, reviving the spirit of the big-band orquestas of decades past like Buena Vista Social Club and Orquesta Aragón.

The 16-piece ensemble recorded in Havana's famous Areito Studio 101 at the state-run EGREM recording complex, where legends like Celia Cruz, Benny Moré and Frank Sinatra recorded since the 1940s. Orquesta Akokán sounds like it could have been recorded that long ago.

"That was our intention," says New York producer Jacob Plasse, a lifelong fan of mambo greats like Moré and Pérez Prado, who teamed up with vocalist José "Pepito" Gómez to recreate Cuba's most iconic sounds on the album. They originally tried to record in New York, but Plasse says it just wasn't the same.

"There's a certain culture of rehearsing and practicing that exists in Cuba, that's hard to find in New York," he says. "Cuban bands rehearse four or five times a week for four or five hours a day. That lent a power to [it]; when you have four saxophones playing together, they would sing the parts back and forth to each other and it really made the music come alive."

Born in 1972, Gómez wasn't alive when Cuban mambo was at its peak in the 1950s. "My generation did not have the opportunity to get to really know [this music], so I discovered it here in New York," he says, speaking to NPR through a translator. "I gave myself the task of studying all the music from that era: the orchestras that were playing at that time, the singers, the way the melodies moved, how to set the words to this music."

When he was in Cuba, Gómez wrote popular songs for bands like Pupy y Los que Son, Son, but he says writing a song for an orquesta was a new challenge. "I was a successful composer, but writing this kind of song was way more difficult. They just used to compose songs in a different way."

Gómez wrote the lyrics and melodies, while Plasse and pianist and arranger Mike Eckroth (who wrote his PhD thesis on Cuban piano solos of the 1940s) arranged the music. Gómez vouches for their authenticity, recounting the reactions of several Cuban musicians who were curious about the arrangements. "They were saying, 'Who is it? Was it someone from here in Cuba?' And I pointed to the man sitting at the piano," he says of Eckroth. "They said, 'What? That little white dude?' And I said, 'The very same.' "

Recording the album in Havana was not without its challenges: Plasse recalls rolling blackouts at the studio and having trouble finding paper to print the music on. Despite those obstacles, he says just being among "the ghosts ... there with you" in Areito Studio 101 was worth it.

While the American musicians had to cut through plenty of red tape to travel to Cuba to record, Plasse says it is much more possible to have this kind of cultural exchange after President Obama's 2014 announcement of a normalization of relations between the countries. Those policies have since been rolled back, and with Raúl Castro's imminent retirement and Fidel Castro's 2016 death, the island faces an uncertain future with the United States.

"It was such an incredible learning experience for me and Mike to go down there and spend time with these musicians who are repositories of knowledge and culture," Plasse says, "that one can only hope that this can continue."

Gómez agrees: "I think this has set a precedent and has been very important for the culture," he says. "Because this record, apart from being simply good music, also serves as a bridge between the two cultures."

Web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Ned Wharton is a senior producer and music director for Weekend Edition.